Sermons from CCCA Conference

Recently I had the privilege to speak at a conference for camp directors from all over the Southeast (the Carolinas/Virginia Super Sectional CCCA conference to be precise). 

I was humbled and honored to speak there for many reasons, but the two biggest being: 1. I've been in the camping ministry scene for over 20 years and it was so encouraging to speak with a whole group of "my people" and 2. Their theme was real "Real Rest" taken from the Message translation of Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28-30.  This topic is particularly meaningful to me as I've wrestled many years with the concepts of Sabbath and what it means to be truly "effective/productive" in ministry.

The leadership team from the event recorded my 3 sermons from the conference and gave me permission to post them here. Enjoy!

(For more information about my speaking/writing ministry or to request me for your next event, click here.)

"No, Christians, no."

"No, Matt, no."

Maybe the only word-for-word sentence I remember from my senior year of high school.

I've forgotten faces, experiences, and a whole other host of memories from my teenage years. And most of what I do remember is polished with the comforting rag of nostalgia.

But I clearly remember this one sentence, and who said it. At the time, I didn't understand fully why he said it, but I do now...

"No, Matt, no."

My senior soccer season was unique not just because it was my last, but because it was my first one playing as a christian. The previous summer had been a huge turnaround for me spiritually and I'd roared into that senior season, eager to play the game I loved, and zealous to evangelize my teammates.

Brent Wood, my life-long friend through rec and school soccer, was one of our team captains, and a vital inspiration for me in learning to live out my faith. We led a bible study for the players throughout the season, and spent many hours together praying and discussing the power of the Scriptures.

Unfortunately, we played soccer for a high school known for its football team. We always finished last in our division, but each season we had a few games with the smaller, local schools as well, and that's where we earned a couple wins and some morsels of self-respect.

"No, Matt, no."

The day I heard those words, we were playing one of the few cream puffs on our schedule, a local high school in Waynesboro, PA. Except this year, they had put together a winning season and had a star player with some real skill. I don't remember his name, but I remember him being the kind of good player that unless he played on your team, you pretty much hated him. Part cocky and part talent, with a generous mix of dirty play, I imagine even the hometown fans, if they were really honest, would confess they had a hard time liking the kid... 

We played in their stadium and the game was not going well. As the heavy favorites, we struggled to create chances and the home crowd surged with underdog momentum. Their star player played well...and played cheap and rough, and got away with most of it.

Sometime in the second half, they scored, and our team shifted from frustrated to desperate.

As for me, I was angry and embarrassed. Before the game, I'd had a vision of what the match would be like...their star player would dazzle a bit, but our clear talent advantage would win out. Yet my glorious dream didn't match the cold reality that they were beating us. We shouldn't be losing to these "scrubs!" 

I began returning their rough play exponentially: slide tackling recklessly, and often leaving my position to try and get a few licks in on their star player, who in my well-honed sense of Athletic Justice, deserved every shin-shattering tackle he received.

The game drew to a close, and my memories are hazy at points, but I think they scored a second goal late and put the match out of reach. Realizing this, I decided to settle on trying to deliver my version of neglected comeuppance to their arrogant captain, rather than seeking a dramatic comeback win.

But then their coach did something that defeated my imagined scenario for a second time that day: he subbed out their star player to the roar of the home crowd. He wasn't an idiot, he knew what was happening on the field.

My already agitated state escalated from Angry to Enraged. Red-faced, with neck veins popping, I yelled at their coach...

"PUT HIM BACK IN! COME ON! PUT HIM BACK OUT HERE!"

And that's when I heard the words, "No, Matt, no."

I turned and Brent Wood stood in the middle of the field, shoulders slumped, face pleading with me.

His words, instead of reminding me about playing the beautiful game of soccer, just heightened my anger, embarrassment, and shame. So, instead of backing off, I doubled down on my warped sense of Justice and Rightness. I yelled at Brent, too.

"I DON'T CARE! HE'S A DIRTY JERK, PUT HIM BACK IN HERE!"

And in the tsunami of my temper, Brent said it again, a little softer, tears in his eyes, hands held up imploring me to calm down...

"No, Matt, no."

The combo of sports and my anger have spawned a million Take-Back moments in my life. Times I wish I would've calmed down, or shut up, or asked a coach to remove me from the game. But this one ranks in the top few...

Because in this one, there was somebody actually speaking truth to me. And he did it twice. Someone who cared deeply about the game of soccer, but cared even more deeply about the Kingdom of Christ.

Yes, friends, this is where the blog turns from sports story to spiritual relevance.

I think most of us agree that there's been severe damage to the public witness of the Kingdom of Christ this political year, and the damage has been done by Christians of all backgrounds, denominations, and spots on the spectrum. We've ignored James 1:19 and we've been quick to be angry, quick to speak...quick to be cynical jerks, quick to post antagonistic things...quick to judge things by reading headlines and not the articles, quick to paint entire people groups with broad brushes and in unflattering colors...and we've been super slow to listen...and super slow to do the main thing we've been commanded to do "politically" and that's pray for our leaders.

I confess all of the above, and especially that last one. Real intercession done from a place of compassion and hope has been a spiritually endangered species for me this year.

I hope we can all pause at this point, and do a bit of repenting that leads to change. But I feel compelled to press on with another observation from my ancient athletic failures...

It wasn't elitist of Brent to look at me, broken at my attitude, and utter the words, "No, Matt, no..." 

It was the right thing to say...it transcended soccer and sprung from a place of perspective, understanding and wisdom...but at the time:

I couldn't hear his words because of my own anger, self-justification, and passionate defensiveness...which in hindsight I realize was born from a hidden shame and frustration that he was right. He. Was. Right.

Friends...there are things that are of Christ and not of Christ...

Matt Orth wanting to make things right by force and violence was not the way of Christ.

Matt Orth acting in anger and revenge was not the way of Christ.

Matt Orth justifying his actions because of the arrogant behavior of their captain was not the way of Christ.

Matt Orth doubling down on self-righteous defensiveness rather than admitting Brent was right was not the way of Christ.

In the same way that I loved soccer and Jesus, but acted in a way that betrayed them both, it's possible to love America and Jesus...and still betray them both.

In our current climate, it's hard to communicate a sincere thought without stepping on a million political and theological land-mines, but, in the spirit of Brent Wood, I'd like to try by saying to Christians that are defending Donald Trump as acting in a Christ-like way...or in the spirit of our Constitution...

"No, Christians, no."

Christians, feel free to applaud our President if you feel his policies are helpful to all the people of America and to the stability and betterment of the world, but please, stop defending his words and behavior as things that would honor Christ. Please stop acting like the words printed on the Statue of Liberty aren't there, or that We the People only means the people that look and think exactly like you...or that Jesus Christ rules by fear and force rather than truth and grace...

"No, Christians, no."

Please. And again, I know we all need to step back from the keyboard more and examine the planks in our eyes before we post or speak, including me. But please...

Stop attaching Jesus to Trump.

Only God knows the state of Trump's salvation. But as a long time believer, I know the fruit of the Spirit, and I know the Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes...and I know that the Gospel we so quickly claim is good news that runs through the old rugged cross, the place where humility submitted to empire in the name of love and for the sake of new life for all.

Donald Trump to this point has not demonstrated the Fruit of the Spirit, the blessings of the Sermon on the Mount, nor the humility associated with Jesus Christ, let alone the office of President of the United States. That's not fake news or media spin or a sentence from a sore loser whose candidate didn't win. It's a statement of Brent-Wood-clarity spoken from brokenness and compassion, with a whole decade's worth of evidence from Donald Trump's own mouth and keyboard backing it up.

I'm not saying you don't love America. I'm not saying you don't love Jesus.  I'm not saying that everybody in that "comment thread" who dislikes Trump is communicating in a Christ-like way. And I'm not saying you should've voted for Hillary...

I'm saying as someone who knows anger, self-justification, and pride as well as anybody: that if you're a Christian, and you're defending the words and behavior of Donald Trump as something that springs from the Kingdom of Christ, that you're just as wrong as I was back on that Pennsylvanian soccer field back in 1991. And I'm saying to you like Brent Wood did to me in his honest, pleading, broken way...

"No, Christians, no."

My prayer is that you're a better listener than I was...

Because the damage to our collective witness isn't just the guys on the team or the fans in the stands...it's the entire world.

 

On Trump & Media Bias

I braved the waters and posted some thoughts on Facebook concerning President-Elect Trump and "media bias." Here it is, posted in full:

Okay...whew...I'm about to make a political post, which is the equivalent of saying I'm about to coat my face in honey and blueberries and stick it into a grizzly bear den in April...

My post is NOT bashing Donald Trump or defending Hillary Clinton.
(Read that last sentence one more time.)

My post is about those talking about "media bias" right now as our society continues to adjust to the idea of Trump as president. The same way that many of you didn't really celebrate the election of President Obama, but had to "adjust" to it...many others, including the majority of our major media sources, are doing the same. I understand the word adjust may not really be adequate right now for many of you, but it will serve...

On Media Bias:
First of all, Trump supporters, unless you specifically attended his rallies, the only way you learned that the "media is out to get Trump" is because Trump told you so...through the media. His rallies themselves were orchestrated and produced, not unlike a reality TV show, to achieve a certain effect utilizing specific mediums. Hence, the word media would apply there as well. (Please don't be defensive: I FULLY understand Hillary's events were designed as well...)

I'm not saying there's no media bias. They were biased. Very biased. Every single major newspaper in the country that endorsed a candidate, endorsed Hillary Clinton. Many of them were also very biased against rural Trump voters, and communicated in elitist, divisive ways. That's not my point today. My main point here is that what I'm seeing in these FB Battles concerning media bias is not media bias.

First, understand, there IS a ton of bad media out there. I get it. And early reporting from the traditionally reputable journalists are already showing that bad journalism, i.e. many of the articles on The Good Ship Facebook, contained harmful lies and destructive half-truths. For both "sides."

However, on topic today, if you delighted in the media's constant reporting of Hillary's emails but now scream foul at their coverage of Trump's decisions since the election, then I don't think media bias is the problem.

Moving on, it's not media bias if the media reports something "your person" said or did that you don't like or makes them look bad. That's their job. They "report." When they comment on it, that's when bias leaks in, but hopefully we all realize that we're all biased. Journalists and those of us listening and reading.

“(People) prefer to believe what they prefer to be true.”
Francis Bacon 

Editing videos and sound bites play a part, too, of course, but the media literally word-for-word sharing what "your person" said, or a public decision your person made, that might make them look bad isn't media bias. 
(Ex: If your coach goes for it on 4th and 18 from your own 1 yard line in the 1st quarter, and the media questions that decision, it's not media bias. Coach made a call the majority of sane football fans/coaches would never make.)

It's responsible journalism for the media to not only report what a President-Elect says or does, but to evaluate what those words and decisions mean...especially if that behavior or speech is more than something that makes them look bad, but is actually something that causes (or increases the chance of it causing) harm to other people.

Trump supporters, if the media reports something potentially dangerous or frightening Trump does or says, you can no longer counter with "But Hillary..." The election is over. That ship has sailed. There is now only President-elect Trump. There is no Hillary to compare with. He stands on his own merits and mistakes. Her faults don't justify his behavior. Her emails don't excuse any incompetency he may demonstrate.
Benghazi isn't elevating a known white supremacist to a position of power. He is.

You, and he, must own the fact your champion won. And he gets all that comes with it: "phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty living space." The office of U.S. president comes with a bajillion watt spotlight aimed directly at your soul, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (We've all seen Obama's hair color. Enough said.) There is no "wait and see" because he's already making decisions that affect ALL of us living in this country, not to mention people around the world. Every pebble he throws lands in the lake of humanity and sends out ripples for everyone.

Additionally, nobody gets to tell people their fears aren't real. Just because you love big dogs doesn't mean you get to tell a person frightened of your German shepherd that their fear of dogs isn't true, or is completely unfounded. Your lack of fear doesn't mean no one else is afraid. (See also: Snakes. Heights. Needles. Public Speaking. Cheap toilet paper.)

When the media reports that significant portions of our population fear what Trump will say, do, or appoint during his presidency, it's not media bias. It's the media saying: "some people are scared and here's why." They're reporting it because people are afraid. Maybe not the people you see at your local restaurant or sing next to on Sunday morning, but many people ARE afraid. Not just people: American citizens. Our neighbors. Our job right now isn't to say their fear of "big dogs" is irrational. It's to listen. 

Related to that, it's a very cheap and disrespectful thing to say that all these people are protesting because they're sore losers. If you listen, that's not what you'll hear the vast majority of the time (if not 100% of the time.)
And I'll go here:
Many of you this past Saturday (or Sunday) lost your mind and blew a head gasket when your favorite sports team had a call made or not made against them. Your anger welled up and you protested, and when your favorite ball coach did the same, you were right there with him in spirit. (See also: Dabo Swinney. Not insulting the man. I love him and root for Clemson in solidarity with my legion of Tigers friends. But he's the most recent example I saw of this.)

A perceived injustice in a split-second moment in an athletic competition causes us to well up with outrage and express it. Please truly listen to others' fear and anger right now, if you do, you may find their "righteous indignation" has a source beyond an uncalled holding penalty.

Lastly, you've all seen or read about my life with Addi. She's my five year old daughter...and as much as she uses a diverse vocabulary and speaks creatively about a variety of topics, she's still five. That means she can still speak in sentence fragments, contradict herself (sometimes in the same paragraph), and speak from petulance. For me to try and discern her logic and motives, and to predict her behavior, is not a display of parental bias. It's my job as a parent....

Please don't be mad. I'm not calling Trump a child. I'm saying we have an election cycle full of evidence from his speeches and answers to legitimate questions...and they contain many sentence fragments, many contradictions, and many comments made in petulance in response to being challenged. I did not say his speech contained them exclusively, I said that it contains many examples of that. If you disagree with me, we probably won't have much more to talk about. (The definitions of fragment and contradiction are pretty clear.)
More importantly, he is not a five year old, he is the President-Elect of the most powerful and complex nation in the history of humankind...how much more should we expect our journalistic "authority figures" to wade into what he says and does to discern his logic and motives, and to predict his behavior?

And because this is Facebook, I need to make a few comments about comments.

Keep comments civil. I'd rather you just read and reflect, but if you must comment, do it with the same grace you'd like to be addressed with.

I'm open to challenges of things written above. I value honest and well-thought out critique.
I'm not open to challenges of things not written above. I do not value knee-jerk reactions written defensively and dramatically.

This is a thread about media bias in the context of President-Elect Trump. It's not another open forum for round 96 of Crooked Hillary vs. Drumpf. It's also not a thread inquiring about or questioning who I did vote for.

If you read my whole post, and then read my comments on comments, and you still comment on something off-topic or off-logic, I'll probably just ignore it. I ask those who may be tempted to wade in and DEFEND TRUTH to ignore it, too.

I may interact some, I may not at all. Even now, a little bit of my eternal soul leaks out of my sternum as I finish a FB political post and actually prepare to publish it...

LASTLY: If I think you're being an absolute doo-doo head to me or others, I'm going to delete your comment, and unfriend/block you.

Much love to you all. Mercy and grace to our nation and our world.

Matt O.

RSVP

Trump voters,

I'm going to address you, then I'm going to address the 3rd party people, and finally, those who didn't want Trump to win. This is not my invitation for you to enter into my comments and defend Trump and bash Hillary again with the same cycle of bullet points we've already seen a hundred times. You've been heard.

It IS an invitation though...

I'm inviting you to realize that as unfathomable as it was for you to think someone would want/desire Hillary as the leader of our country, it was just as unfathomable to a significant portion of our population (the greater number of people according to the popular vote) that Trump would be the right leader for our time.

You claimed you weren't listened to...that your vote was an act of defiance against the liberal elites and tone-deaf Washington. Guess what? You're right. Washington has almost categorically ignored the rural red of our country, either giving lip service or pandering to you with cheap, quick promises. You've been heard, and you have your President.

With that said, I'm inviting you to listen to the folks who didn't resonate with Trump's message of "Make America Great Again" because to them it wasn't about shaking up the establishment and bringing jobs back to the red states...to them the message was (and I'm simplifying here, ok?) "America isn't great right now because it's changing too fast because of the immigrants, the LGBTs, the feminists, and the Others. We need to take America BACK from them."

Again...I'm asking you to listen to those people and ask why they all heard that message and not Trump wants to dismantle the corrupt system (and it IS corrupt) and bring back jobs (and we DO need them back.) I'm asking you to listen. Not defend Trump. Not bash Hillary. Listen to why they weeped last night and fear for their children. It's not because their candidate lost, it's because your candidate won...and the things he's said he'd do that aren't about jobs and shaking things up targets them specifically in very concrete ways. 

Lastly, it's my invitation for you to prove all the "Hillary people" wrong. Seriously. It's up to you to prove you love these neighbors that aren't white, that aren't straight, that believe women can lead as well as men, etc. that President Trump is really about hope for all American citizens. It means many things, but a simple example is: if President Trump starts to oppress people who exercise their Constitutional right to free speech, you'll defend them even if you disagree with them. OK?

Listen first, with mouth closed. Their fear is real and justified. Love your neighbor as yourself as you yourself would want to be loved if you were in their shoes.

Dear 3rd Party Voters,

First of all, I don't blame you for the results of this election. I don't. Do I wish someone else won with the help of your votes? Sure. But democracy is about the freedom and right of 3rd party voting and I respect and defend that.

But this is an invitation to you as well...

My invitation to you isn't to listen. It's to keep going with your passion and your convictions beyond a one-time vote every four years.

I'm inviting you to do something that the vast majority of you have never done. Funnel your frustration into offering a viable 3rd party candidate next election cycle. Seriously. Google how to do it. I refuse to put a link in here to make it easy for you. Because if you're not willing to research how to participate, kindle, and persevere in a grass roots 3rd party on your own, then I don't think you're taking my invitation seriously.

And I don't think you're taking your vote or politics as seriously either. To complain all election cycle about the evil candidates and the broken system, cast a vote for a 3rd party candidate who had no chance to win at all, and then spend the next 4 years saying "don't blame me, I voted _____" and then crescendo into another presidential election where you do the exact same thing is the height of hypocrisy and the portrait of self-righteous political laziness.

I'm not upset at you. But I am asking you to put your civic action where your vote went.

Lastly, to the people upset about the Trump victory,

I'm here for you. I know why you're weeping, mourning, and maybe even gnashing your teeth. I will not give you any spiritual platitudes here because now is not Praise Chorus Psalms time for you, it's a Psalm of Lament time. And there needs to be space for that.

I am inviting you to vent to me if you want to. I can't promise I'll answer everyone, but I'll read it and pray for grace and peace for you. Because it's been such a volatile season, and we've seen the worst of attitudes, thinking, and empathy from our fellow humans, if you need to vent to me, click on the Twitter icon or FB icon at the bottom of this post and contact me privately with your frustrations or your hurt. I don't want to open you up to further public shame and violence.

We're all humans. And I believe we're all created in the Image of God which means we were designed to reflect the Love of God in the way we live with each other. The Mercy of Jesus be with us all.

Matt O.

 

Goldfish & Penal Substitution: Mack Ore Does Kids Ministry

(an excerpt from Death by Breakfast: The Memoirs of the Rev Mack Ore)

“Can you say penal substitution?”

The question hung in the air and the kids that weren’t slouched in their seat with vacant stares were openly shaking their heads no at me. It was my first week in God’s Theology Explorers class and it was not going well. The kids complained about the Theology Explorers name I gave them and suggested many others, such as the Jesus Lovers, God’s Army, and The Transformers. My first lesson was stalling badly. I had intended to show what Christ did for them on the cross by demonstrating how Jesus took our sins and God’s wrath on himself and made a way for us to be right with God. I thought it would be fun to have different kids in the crowd play out the parts of my theological lesson.

I chose a boy named Brent to stand on the right and be God the Father and asked a kid named Robbie to stand on my left and represent the Devil. The kids erupted at that choice. Calling Robbie “the devil” and laughing their little cow-licked heads off, I tried to maintain order by yelling out, “OK, who wants to be Jesus? Who wants to be Jesus?”

I thought all the kids would want that role. Nope. My lone volunteer was Maria. A girl. I tried to ignore her but she stood on her chair and kept squealing “Mister Mack, Mister Mack!” I relented and had her stand in the middle between God and the Devil. She stuck her tongue out as kids shouted that a girl can’t be Jesus. I agreed with them but suggested maybe God’s grace was big enough to cover it today. They kept protesting.

Lastly, I grabbed a kid from the front row to be my representation of humanity and show how God the Father was angry with him, but Jesus could save him. The kid I picked was a seasoned introvert named Elliot. Four years old and full of fears. As I built up the teaching to the vocab-lesson-climax of Penal Substitution, Elliot, my stand-in for humanity, was crying as I talked about his sins… Satan Robbie laughed at him as Brent, God the Father, picked his nose. Jesus Maria was lifting her dress to show the other girls in the front row what her tights looked like. I jumped to my conclusion.

“Can you say penal substitution?”

Several students shouted out attempts that would’ve been bleeped out on network TV.

The only way to salvage the moment was an altar call.

“Everyone bow their heads and close their eyes,” I shouted. “We’re going to pray.”

There’s nothing like that phrase to get a room of church folk to snap to attention. I don’t doubt there’s many a devout believer that when they hear that phrase thinks in their mind, “Oh, the Lord is about to do a sweet work and bring in some sheaves from the harvest.” But most church folk think, “Yes, it’s almost done.” Kids are no different.

I repreached my lesson in the prayer and made sure I emphasized how a lack of Jesus would mean that our sins still required God’s wrath. I ended by asking them to raise their hands if they wanted Jesus to take their sins away so they could live forever with God. Every kid got saved that day. I gave them all an extra portion of goldfish crackers at snack time.

The next week, I thought I’d try something novel and emphasize prayer with the kids. Maybe the key to teaching them to obey God was more prayer and less systematic theology. I drew a picture of the globe on the world and talked about what the Christians in those countries were going through. I explained how we needed to pray for them in their persecutions and sufferings. Humanity Eliot starting crying again, and on cue, Satan Robbie laughed at him.

I changed gears. “Who has a prayer request?”

“My grandma’s sick.”

 “My grandma’s sick too.”

“Mine too.”

“My grandpa’s sick.”

“Me too. Me too.”

“Okay,” I shouted, “Who has sick grandparents? Raise your hand.” Apparently everybody’s family tree was dying except for Jesus Maria who was holding the ends of her braided pigtails and making them dance.

“Do you have any other prayer requests?” I asked.

    “My dad needs a new job.”

    “My cousin needs surgery.”

    “We have a soccer game today.”

    “It’s too hot out.”

    “My neighbor’s dog got shot by another neighbor but he says he didn’t do it but my mom says he did. But they might have to put the dog to sleep because it’s hurt real bad.”

    I paused as my flock of thirty preschoolers processed that last request. I realized then that I did need to teach more, and considered starting in that moment with Jesus’ thoughts on prayer. As I formed my words, Satan Robbie jumped into the silence and blurted out his request.

    “My mom got bit by a werewolf.”

By the fourth week of Theological Explorers Preschool class, I was taking down the collapsible wall between our class and the empty one beside it and letting the kids run amok for an hour. I started off with a bible verse that I made them yell along with me and then I hit play on the tape player and blared kids praise music. Centered in the room was an open bowl of goldfish crackers where they could graze at their leisure. I purchased four soft kick balls that I threw out into the pandemonium in random intervals. I asked the children’s directors if I could have the same two eighth grade girls help me every week, who I placed on bathroom duty for the hour. Overall, I felt like my service to the church of the future went well, despite their complete inability to grasp the blessings of atonement.

 

Conquering the Warm Body Mentality

It was an ordinary Wednesday night, filled with the weekly hustle and bustle of young humans bouncing off each other in the church gym. A deacon in the congregation approached me, the gleam of an agenda in his eye...

"Hey there, Matt."
"Oh hey, Deacon."
"I was wanting to talk to you about the youth this summer."
"Ok, it's February though."
"I know. We were just talking about Vacation Bible School this summer."
"Ok."
"We were thinking the teens might not need a class this summer, you know, they're getting kind of old for it--"
"I couldn't agree more, Deacon."
"Well, you think the older teens could help out then with the younger VBS classes, you know, like be assistants and help the older teachers?"
"I was thinking the same thing! I think the teens are ready for something like that."
"So you don't have a problem making that happen?"
"Not at all Deacon, I think it's a great idea."

The next Sunday in our church was Nominating Sunday, which consists of the Nominating Committee announcing who had accepted the “nominations” for the various volunteer positions in the church for the coming year: everything from the Ushers to the Sunday School Teachers, the Senior Saints director to the Holiday Decorating Committee. This creatively stretched minority of the flock, whose sacrificial demeanor made them perennial favorites of servitude--or targets, depending on your perspective, were unveiled before the church in awkward glorious display.

The Deacon from my Wednesday night conversation was also the chairman of the Nominating Committee, and he stood on stage, shifting from foot to foot, listing name after monotonous name for their respective positions, the fuzzy-headed microphone waving in his hand like a lollipop long bereft of joy.

I sat almost dozing in my pew, when the Deacon's voice broke my trance with the following words:

"And we're real excited this year about our Vacation Bible School, our VBS director this year is Matt Orth."

Stunned, I made eye contact with the Deacon across the golden-harvest-colored pews, his look letting me know what our conversation had been about and surely I knew that, right?

I laughed, put on my ministerial game-face and shuffled out of the rows to join the rest of the assembled ministers, a mismatched crew of excitement and duping. I thought it appropriate that I stand next to the Person Who Counts The Money This Year and the Family Life Center Scheduler, thinking in my heart that perhaps their conversations were something like mine (Do you like money? Good. Have you ever used a calendar? Excellent.) and that maybe we were soul mates in the unpredictable world of volunteerism.

The Nominated turned into the Dedicated as the Deacon blessed us with a prayer chock full of KJV pronouns for the "upbuilding of the Lord's earthly Kingdom" during the next twelve months.

I directed VBS that year and I don't remember much about it. My hunch is that finger jello and popsicle sticks were somehow involved.

Over the years, the Nominating Sunday became symbolic to me of what eventually I named the "Warm Body Mentality" in many congregations. The Warm Body Mentality (WBM) is where a church decides what needs to happen program-wise in their church Body life and then they just find the Warm Bodies to make it happen. Calling, Gifting, Genuine Needs and intangibles like Faithfulness, Fruit of the Spirit, and Relevance rarely enter into the equation of acquisition. What matters is a YES and a Warm Body making the desired event or programming actually happen.

I firmly believe WBM is one of the reasons we often sense a lack of vitality in the fellowship of our churches and concurrently a reason why so many young people often leave the flock never to return…

Isn't it good that we have volunteers running those vital programs? What if we didn't have those programs and we had visitors come in and they left because we didn't meet their needs? Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental? 

I will answer those three questions asked by my hypothetical Deacon of Defensiveness:

1. Isn't it good that we have volunteers running those vital programs?

I want to respond with Jesus' words in Matthew 19 to the rich young ruler: "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Ha. Seriously, what is "good" when we're talking about church programming?
Does good mean simply functioning? Does good mean it is still operating the way it was 20 years ago? Does good mean it has a lot of participation?

I believe if we're going to use the adjective good when describing church programming it should mean the activity or program has demonstrated proven long-term results in helping folks become better followers of Jesus Christ. Some would call that discipleship or spiritual formation. It is the reason we should have a program in our church--not to just make folks happy, keep folks coming, maintain a legacy of existence, or to make places for people to get plugged in--but to create environments where healthy spiritual growth takes place.

And how do we know if a program is beneficial to the spiritual formation of its participants?
Great question and a tough one to answer, one I would answer with more questions:
Are relationships being formed that exist outside the programmed event?
Do people get there early and want to stay late?
Do people participate in the process or just spectate?
Are you seeing the fruit of the Spirit in conversations?
Can you observe increased humility, forgiveness, grace, and hope? Increased trust and vulnerability?
Do people talk specifically about Christ and knowing Him or vaguely about God and pleasing Him?
Is there a sense of commitment and faithfulness, of increased interest?
Do people come prepared, bringing their bibles or curriculum or having read the required reading?
Is it something people want to invite others to rather than being told to invite others to?


Those diagnostic questions are helpful but not perfect. They are also tough to apply to our children's programming and much of our student activities. It is a tough reality that many times our kids and teens come and get excited about our programming not because of Jesus but because they are kids and teens--and we give them a space to be that.

We beam with pride when our kids sing the songs in front of the congregation, or answer the Sunday School questions correctly about who lost their power when his hair got cut, or when our youth group is busting at the seams of their boisterously painted youth room. And all of those can be legitimate sources of pride and joy. . .believe me, no one loves a kids choir special on a Sunday morning more than this guy. . .but. . .

I don't just want our kids to answer questions about Jesus or do the nice things because they're scared of Jesus not letting them go to heaven--I want them to share their cookies because they love Jesus. I want them to say "I'm sorry" not because we make them say it but because they've seen us parents practice grace, humility and forgiveness. This isn't a blog about child psychology and age of accountability or a plea for a particular type of curriculum--but a blog about our markers, our diagnostics, for what is good often having little to do with loving Jesus and neighbor and a lot to do with the appearance of a successfully functioning religious institution.

Most teenagers want a place to be themselves, see their friends, and get a little loud and crazy every once in a while. Snacks and music would be great in that place as well. Our churches provide that exact desired environment. Is a student ministry program good just because it has teenagers in it? Is a zoo good just because it has animals in it? Is a movie good just because it has some cool explosions and attractive actors? Decades of church statistics show us that successful youth programming (having lots of students participating) often does not equate down the road to young adults who love Jesus and are committed to a local church.


Back to the original question, "Isn't it good that we have volunteers running these vital programs?"
I would say not necessarily--a program that is just being run for reasons stemming from the desire to see "apparent success of the religious institution" can often mask a lack of fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples who obey Christ and His teachings with the whole of their lives.

Back to our imaginary Deacon’s questions…

2. What if we didn't have those programs and we had visitors come in and they left because we didn't meet their needs? 
I think we make too many decisions out of "fearful hypotheticals." We create a scenario in our minds that we are scared might happen and then react as if that situation has already occurred or is a worst case scenario. There might be this visiting family who has this one 6th grade boy who doesn't play well with students outside his peer group and needs a 6th/7th grade Sunday School class but we don't have one so the family might leave. . .so let's get that Sunday School class started. This may sound exaggerated to many of you--but I've heard very similar detailed reasons given like this in many a meeting about not only volunteers, but about new ideas, and even about some theological points. (If "A" is true we're worried that "B", "C", "D" will happen so "A" obviously can't be true or we refuse to acknowledge it to be true because of fear of B, C, D.)

I think making fear-based decisions is rarely a healthy thing for a people led by the Spirit.

I also think that sometimes we’re guilty of elevating the concept of "meeting people's needs" above the concept of "called and capable" people leading a particular program. If my car needs to be fixed and I try to get a well-intentioned and willing accountant to fix it, the attempt may be made but the car will probably remain unfixed. It is hard to meet a person's spiritual needs with someone unequipped to do so. When forming our programming to meet people's needs we should ask ourselves "What needs are we able to actually meet?" as well as "Are these people's needs or their preferences/desires?"

I do not expect volunteer leaders to be perfect at their jobs, (there are no perfect mechanics that I know of), but we should expect them to be competent and have some sense of calling and passion for their position. Lastly, as for the fear of people's needs not being met because of a lack of programming and them leaving: It's OK. God is a pretty big God with a ton of local churches out there. If you're not ready for that particular family in regards to your programming: it’s okay, God can lead them to another congregation OR God can lead them to endure with your congregation until that “program” develops naturally with the right leadership. I’ve seen this happen firsthand in my own congregation. And I’m not talking about the absence of a Middle School Boy’s Sunday School class, in the beginning we didn’t have music, youth, OR children’s programs!

3. Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental?
You can probably tell from my previous answer where this one is going. Should an accountant work on my car? Should a toddler play with matches? In most scenarios, of course not, unless said accountant is a proverbial jack-of-all-trades and the young tot is a pyro-savant. And why is the answer no? Because of the harm that comes from folks messing with stuff they don't know about.

When you have someone who is a nice person and a willing person but doesn't know Jesus real well or the Scriptures real well, you do not have a Sunday School teacher.

When you have someone who wants to direct a committee or serve on a board but doesn't have a real prayer life or hasn't demonstrated wisdom in their own personal lives, you do not have a leader.

When you have someone who has kids and shows up regularly on Wednesdays, but doesn't know how to hold a conversation with a teenager or share their personal testimony in a meaningful way, you do not have a student ministry volunteer.


I said above that making fear-based decisions is rarely a healthy thing for people led by the Spirit--I said rarely because I think there are two kinds of fear we need to have more often:
A "fear of the Lord" where we respect His desire for His children to bear His image and a "fear for the spiritual health of our sheep" that supersedes our desire to have any ole pasture (program/leader) for our sheep to graze in.

I believe much of the lack of spiritual vitality in our congregations and much of the exodus of our churched youth from further church life and involvement can be traced to putting warm bodies in positions of spiritual influence who had little to no spiritual lives themselves. They went from being nice unsaved/unchurched people to plugged-in church people rather quickly--without much training or recognition of spiritual formation in them by actively involved spiritual overseers.

If we want the meat and potatoes of the faith to be eaten by those in our care but place baby-food and milk-bottle Christians in a majority of our influential positions, then we can’t complain when our young people leave our congregations seeking steak elsewhere. When people (young people especially) don't see the fruit or the fire in their leaders, we cannot expect their faith, fruit, or fire to manifest magically on its own. In fact, when people (including myself) see the lowest common denominator being accepted it is very easy and natural to set your own standards to the same level.

I know this is not the case in all churches so do not be offended by these general observations--but I know these descriptions are unfortunately accurate for many congregations.

Now that we’ve established the existence and dangers of the Warm Body Mentality, let’s examine some positive and viable alternatives to the WBM. . .

I will start with some disclaimers:

  1. There are no perfect churches, no perfect programs, no perfect methods for recruiting/training/keeping volunteers, and certainly no perfect discipleship methods.
  2. There are no one-size-fits-all, can't-miss techniques that can be used in every church, every culture.
  3. I am not perfect in my principles or methods either. Nor have I always followed my own advice, particularly with volunteers. Most of my principles come from my mistakes. And none of these principles are "re-inventing the wheel".
  4. God's grace sustains us all and His Spirit moves in many ways--even sometimes through Warm Bodies just going through the motions.

On Recruiting Volunteers

When you ask someone to be a volunteer, give them enough time to process the requirements of the position and to pray about it. Starting with a sense of urgency like "I need to know by tomorrow if you're willing to be our Children's Director for the next 80 years because I know you love kids because you have like six of them," is not a positive first step. I recommend a face-to-face conversation first with a follow-up email with all the details of the position including:

  • How long the commitment is for and when will they have an opportunity to step down or renew the commitment. Or if/how they can downgrade or upgrade responsibilities.
  • What kind of accountability they will have, who they are responsible to report to, and what the evaluation process will be.
  • What the time commitments are, including not just the start/end times of services/events, but what time they will be expected to be there both before and after the service/event.
  • All the rest of the duties spelled out whatever they may be (teaching, running sound, getting food ready, etc.) including any intangible expectations like "building relationships with teenagers", which may mean telling them specifically things such as "Do not sit on the back row with all the other adults but sit with actual students in the rows."
  • Give them a gracious way to say "NO." You're looking for volunteers who want to be there.

Also in your recruitment conversation and in your email, encourage them again to pray about the position, but also tell them the three things you look for in a volunteer. . .

  • Called: Some sense of peace, calling, or passion for this position but preferably all three. You're not looking for someone to do it out of guilt, because they really like you, or any form of the "I guess I need to get plugged in somewhere" mentality.
  • Committed: You consider this position a commitment and a covenant. If they say they're going to do it, then they need to do it. Whether it's tougher than they thought or whether or not they feel encouraged enough, etc. A commitment to the very end: if you sign up to lead a small group, then lead the group (according to the specific duties spelled out for them) no matter how small it gets. . .if it started with 14 and dwindles down to 4, it's just a smaller group. Same expectations apply.
  • Capable: Affirm why you asked them to serve in the first place: they have gifts and skill-sets, or sources of joy that you (and probably others) noticed. You wouldn't have asked if you didn't think they were capable.

After all that and your mighty Avengers are assembled, your duties then are the following (and here's where I have often failed):

  1. Pray for your volunteers.
  2. Check in with them to see how they and the job description are lining up.
  3. ENCOURAGE them. Don't just use them as slave labor for the success of your ministry. Care about their spiritual development as well: suggest books to them, ask about their relationship with Christ, etc.
  4. Gently correct any behavior that is not in keeping with your expectations or that are in clear opposition to the agreed upon job description. Don’t just “swallow it” and unload on them at the end of the year and don’t just confront it in public right when you see it: set up a face-to-face meeting.
  5. Keep your end of the deal. Make sure you are providing them the tools they need to thrive: giving them curriculum or small group questions in a timely manner, making purchases ahead of time and not at the last minute, don't change their job description by adding on duties all the time, give accountability and evaluations as promised, etc.

And lastly, some miscellaneous thoughts about Warm Body Mentality and programming:

  1. What if you just had staff get to know their people and then discovered what Callings, Commitment-Levels, and Capabilities already existed in your people and then built your programming around them? A "Developing Unique Programs According to Your Unique People" vs. "Plugging People into Your Already Designed Programs"
  2. What about knowing a program will be healthy for your church but instead of starting it right away you take a year to train your volunteer leaders on what you want the program to look like? A good example is small group ministry: Instead of getting a dozen leaders to immediately start their own small groups after a one hour crash course on small groups, what about making a small group with those 12 leaders and you lead the group the way you want them to lead their groups? It is a long-view version of programming but I think it is a powerful, mature, and healthy way to really start something well.
  3. What if instead of looking at every program as a permanent part of the structure of your church life you thought of programs as seasons? And seasons change. Except in this case you ask yourself: In this season of our church (or particular part of our church) is this program still the best way to be utilizing our volunteers for the spiritual formation of God's Kingdom people? If it's not, change the programming.

Hope this helps, my friends. You are not alone and none of us are perfect. Trust and persevere! Grace and Peace to you,

Matt O.

See You at the Donuts

(an excerpt from the upcoming memoir, Death by Breakfast by the Rev Mack Ore)

Later that fall, our church board voted to expand the youth budget so youth pastor Slick could hand out free donuts at our first See You at the Pole event. Those events always struck me as funny. You’re praying in public to show people you care about your school but you only do it for one day. There’s also that verse in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says don’t announce your prayers in public. Maybe Jesus never anticipated the evangelistic force of powdered crème-filled donuts eaten around the stars and stripes. If he did, he probably would’ve added a footnote to those rather restrictive prayer instructions.

Our first time praying around the flagpole earned mixed results. Slick picked me up at 6:30 am so I could help with the donut distribution process. Amber Morgan was already in the van. She was a junior that smelled like honeysuckle and looked like the lady writhing on the cars in that Whitesnake video. This ministry thing had benefits.

“What’s your favorite kind of donut?” I asked.

“Ummm,” she said.

“Mine’s Boston Kreme. I like the pudding inside better than the white icing,” I said.

“I don’t really eat donuts,” she said.

“I bet if you married me, I could change your mind,” I thought. Maybe I could convince her to try a Kruller, that’s a solid starter donut…

    “I’ll need you guys to be high energy. We need as many signatures as possible, ok? Make sure you pray real loud too so others are encouraged to join in,” said Slick.

    We picked up the donut boxes at the bakery and stacked them on the van seats. By the time we got to the school we’d lost a dozen sprinkled ones which had slid off the seat, and at least four Boston Kremes due to unknown causes. Millie Morton met us near the bus circle in the grassy island that held the flagpole. She was the Saint of the Kitchen in our church. Every church has one, the person who knows where everything is located in the cabinets and coordinates the food-featured events in the multi-purpose room. The person you ask when you find leftovers in the church fridge and want to know if that pie is good or not. Millie had two tables out on the lawn, with table cloths and a poster reading “Sign-In for SYATP Here!”

    Students from various youth groups trickled into the space around the pole, staring at each other like they’d stumbled alive from a car wreck. Bus circles were always awkward places…glad we could add to that. Slick set up a boom box and played Petra’s latest cassette. You could only hear it if you were standing next to the donuts. Amber’s posse of the dream girls of chastity arrived and I bobbed my head to the inspirational lyrics. I started a sixth donut.

    Slick whistled everyone together.

    “Thanks everyone for showing up today for our first annual See You at the Pole prayer event! We’re super pumped you guys showed your faith today by boldly coming into the school early to pray. Let’s gather around close to the pole and kneel. Put your hands on each other’s shoulders or hold hands. Let’s pray for God to win our school this year!”

    I didn’t want to pray out loud. My prayers always ended with a rushed just-be-with-everyone-God-in-Jesus’-name-amen. Luckily the other churches brought their heavy hitters so there were no conspicuous silences in between prayer warriors. My arms started aching in the third prayer. By prayer five, my knees felt like they were in a concrete vice. My intercessory stamina was weak and I knew I’d have to break prayer protocol and stand, but I was saved by a sudden interruption.

    As a Baptist kid droned on about saving souls, the grumbling muffler of Steve Blain’s jacked up pick-up broke our reverie. To call Steve the class clown of the seniors was a disservice to class clowns. He was more like the poster boy for King James donkeys. He had reversed his truck until the back tires were on the grass lawn, and was revving the gas with the truck in neutral. All holiness ceased. Steve cranked up AC/DC on his high-end stereo system and hung his fat weasel face out the window. He stuck out his tongue out and made the devil’s horns with his hands. Petra didn’t stand a chance.

    I looked around to see who was still fake-praying when Slick made eye contact with me and nodded towards the big blue truck with a “Go take care of that will you, bud?” look. I’m not sure why I got the call. And I still don’t know why I answered the call.

    I stood up and wove through the crowd towards Steve. The Christians tried to focus on prayer, but I heard the murmurs as they watched scrawny Mack Ore march to face the Philistine. I pictured myself as Moses, winding through the Israelites, panicked and stuck against the edge of the vast sea. Fear not, people of God, I go to make a way for you.

    Steve stared me down as I arrived.

    “Would you mind turning that down? It’s hard to pray.”

    “WHAT?” He yelled, pretending not to know why I was there.

    “WOULD YOU MIND TURNING THAT DOWN—“ He cut off the music suddenly and my voice boomed out “IT’S HARD TO PRAY!”

    Steve cackled a maniacal laugh into the silence my words created. He peeled out on the grass, and flung clods of dirt on Miss Millie’s tables and the remaining donuts. I heard he got suspended three days for destruction of school property but not for interrupting a prayer meeting. I’m pretty sure up in heaven St. Peter entered in some detailed notes on Steve concerning Judgment Day.

    Praying is hard though. We know we’re supposed to do it more but we just don’t. If I could do it all over, I would’ve taken Steve some donuts as a peace offering instead of strutting up to him like I was going to smote him with truth. Peacemaking with glazed donuts seems more like Jesus, but back then I was Elijah and he was a prophet of Baal.

    

Jesus Wasn't a Good Pastor

Pastors,

You're dealing with an insane amount of pressure. I don't how big your church is: whether it's the kind that needs to maintain a certain level of numerical growth to be considered healthy, or it's the kind where you stopped measuring growth and just want to maintain a heartbeat. Either way: I know you're facing pressure.

The word pastor for many of you is not just what people call you; it's the title of a job description that includes an impossible list of expectations that is rarely shortened but frequently lengthened. Not only are you pastor, you are apostle, teacher, preacher, prophet, and evangelist, but most of you are also juggling the additional roles of chaplain, hospice worker, coach, financial guru, counselor, talk show host, and prototype of the human race.

Unfortunately, most of the pressures of this type come from outside structures, and require radical decisions to alleviate them...

But one of the pressures you face is one you yourself can control. It doesn't come from boards, denominations, or the legacy of a church history. Swirling through the weight of the usual expectations is a pressure many of you haven't identified, and because it exists silently within you, pushing and squeezing anonymously, you haven't realized its toll on your soul.

You're trying to identify with Jesus as a fellow pastor.

But Jesus isn't a pastor, never was. Prophet and Priest, yes. But not pastor.

Jesus never dealt with what you're dealing with. It's true. Sure, Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are...having to deal with pride, anger, greed, lust, selfishness, etc. And Jesus lived a human life among us just as we live a human life, but it was lived according to His own unique calling. His calling and your calling lead to two different lives.

Jesus didn't have a spouse or kids. There was no sharing of the bed and thermostat with another human and there were no soccer games to attend or braces to buy. And for you single pastors, He only had to endure public scrutiny of His non-existent love life for a measly three years...not the entirety of his life span. 

He didn't have a home, a car, or student loans. There was no lawn to mow, no health insurance plan to figure out, and no career trajectory hampered by a narrow resumé. 

He openly ditched his extended family responsibilities other than a brief charge to his best friend at His death. 

He didn't lead a specific congregation in a specific place. Although eventually His preaching content cost Him his life, Jesus didn't stay put with the same people and deal with the fall out of his weekly sermon points. He never had to navigate wave after wave of social justice issues, culture wars, or political cycles with the people paying His salary.

No board provided him feedback on his job performance, and no worship leader ever had to choose songs to fit his untitled sermons. (C'mon everybody, sing along..."Foxes have holes, birds have nests, hate your momma and all the rest!") 

He never had to rearrange the church calendar to accommodate the Christmas cantata, never had to find classroom space for "all those kids," and He most certainly never had to dress up as Himself for Vacation Bible School.

The only wedding we know He attended, He got to be the one bringing out the good wine, instead of being the guy people hid their wine from. And maybe we shouldn't talk about funerals...He showed up late to His best friend's wake and then instead of enduring the weeks of grief afterwards, decided to undo the death.

Let's just say it: Jesus wasn't a good pastor. He wasn't a good pastor because Jesus wasn't a pastor.  And you should stop trying to identify with Him as a pastor. You're doing things He never did, and He performed things you could never accomplish. He walked on water. You have to sit in the dunking booth to raise money for missions.

Release yourself from identifying with Jesus as a pastor, but let Jesus minister to you, the pastor. Let the Good Shepherd bring your soul to still waters and green pastures.

As pastor, God doesn't expect you to be a martyr, a savior, or a miracle worker. God doesn't expect you to be Jesus, God invites you to follow Jesus. Following Jesus means walking the humble path of service, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, and manifesting the truths of the Sermon on the Mount. It means your love for Jesus translates into compassion for the sheep of your flock, feeding them and laying down your life for them in simple acts of love and devotion which will rarely look like a rugged cross on a hill but will frequently look like listening to the frustrations of a disgruntled human carrying painful emotional baggage. It means you're still human, and need vacations, Sabbaths, and hobbies. It means if you have a spouse and kids, your pastoral call starts with loving them well.

It also means when you're asked to preside at weddings and funerals, you do so clothed in Christ and abiding in Christ, but not in comparison to Christ. Being a pastor doesn't mean being a super hero version of Jesus. You'll gradually wither internally if the source of your religious activity springs from a Messiah complex. Instead, work on recognizing the Spirit of Jesus living in you, empowering you to serve out of peace, joy, and hope.

Jesus wasn't a good pastor, but He's an amazing priest, interceding on your behalf even now, imploring God to lavish you with grace in your unique role that He never served in, and whispering for you to lay down the yoke of false expectations and receive His rest for your soul.

Grace and peace to you,

Matt O.

P.S. By the way, you ain't Paul either. And that's pretty great, too.

Too Right May Make a Wrong

Listen...

To the prophet on the edges, living alone and beyond, straining his ear for the Heavenly Wind, knowing that hearing casts him further outside the circle of acceptance. He delivers the words entrusted to him, words of challenge to methods and music, words of defiance tofeasting and fasting. Away with the noise! Be gone sacrifices! Board up the temple! This vanity of Law-abiding worship keeps mouths sounding holy, but seals hearts far from God...

Listen...

To the older brother as he protests the welcoming party for the return of his rebelliousbrother. He did everything right as the firstborn son. He never wasted the family resources on wild living. He never left the father's side or his place in the fields. His brother deserves a reckoning, not a BBQ. He has a very valid point. The father pleads with him but the son still refuses to listen...

"Son, you're missing the point."

"BUT I'M RIGHT!"

"Yes, you are. But you're also so wrong, my son..."

Listen...

To the teacher of Israel, wise Nicodemus, a member of the ruling council, as he banters with Jesus about the Kingdom the young Jew preaches. He is confused, overwhelmed even, at this Jesus who paints such bold pictures with the Scriptures, using vivid colors from a spiritual palette he never knew existed. Nicodemus, a leader of leaders, steeped in knowledge, grave in demeanor, feeling that Jesus is perhaps in error, asks him how an old man can crawl back into his mother's womb to experience this new birth. His theology is well-thought out and robust, so asking the country carpenter that question seemed less ridiculous than the idea that his theology was incorrect...

Listen...

To the best of the Hebrews, the Pharisee of Pharisees, Saul, faultless in righteousness, unmatched in zeal. He is on mission for God to protect the dignity and integrity of Yahweh, to eliminate those who have corrupted the faith. Saul rides with honor until he is struck blind on the road to justice. He who followed God with fierce sincerity, purity of intentions, and rightness in doctrine asks the very Lord he serves...

"Who are you?"

Listen...

To the Rock, Peter, the one who walked on water and made the Good Confession, the restored and commissioned one, powerful preacher and Spirit-filled apostle. He rests on the rooftops, hungry in body, praying in Spirit. His eyes watch the animals of the world and his stomach growls. The heavenly voice instructs him to kill and eat. Three times. And three times, the preacher rejects the voice, because it clearly and absolutely contradicts his convictions and tradition...

"Do not call anything impure that God has made clean..."

Listen...

To the council of Jerusalem, the board of directors ruling at the intersection of The Way and The Temple, navigating the swirling rapids of Spirit-led change and time-tested truth. They meet to discuss their new family members, the Gentiles, and whether they can truly belong without undergoing circumcision, the sign of the everlasting covenant given to Abraham. The Scriptures speak clearly yet the council decides to honor what they heard of God's work among the Gentiles: that he had cleansed their hearts, and given them the Spirit. So they choose the wisdom of following the new direction of the Holy Spirit rather than the precedents of their past...

Listen...

To the King of Kings, teaching with authority on the mountain. Watch the eyes of the listeners as he tells them of a vast number of folks boasting of great and mighty deeds done in his name. He tells them he will dismiss these bold prophets and dealers in the supernatural as workers of evil. The King says though they used his name, he never knew them...

Listen...

...and be humbled. The Scriptures testify over and over to our supreme confidence in our own understanding of the Scriptures, and to the radical new wine of the Holy Spirit which is poured out in different seasons and times, confounding the "wisest" of us, shaking our carefully built structures, and received only by the listening.

Listen...

Lord, to our prayers. Humble us, deepen our trust, open the eyes of our heart, bind us together in grace, and lead us forward in the Kingdom by your Spirit. Amen.

Holiday Values Part 6

(The last installment of the re-run of my 2012 Holiday Blog series)

Is your tree droopy?

What's that? You already took down your tree and all the trimmings? Impressive. You probably bake every morning too, don't you?

Our tree who stood at attention presiding over the festivities, guarding presents and filling the air with a soft pine scent now sags with a holiday hangover, the first ever Weeping Pine tree...

Yes, friends, the Holidays are almost over and my infant daughter made a powerful point about it this past week:

Baby Addi is only 16 months old but she is going full-force into that exploratory stage of knowing what she wants, wanting to touch and hold everything, experimenting with her first words, and generally being a curious little monkey (a monkey that sometimes sneaks a gallon of Red Bull).

She has embraced books and us reading them to her, or more often, her sitting on our laps and flipping pages as we try to read them to her.

Good night moo-
Good nigh--
Good--
G--
OK, I'll just hold you as you turn the pages.

There was one book this Christmas she really fell in love with: the one that told the Christmas Story...except she wasn't interested in the story very much. She was just interested in flipping to the huge centerfold picture of Baby Jesus in the manger. She LOVED that picture. It was all she cared about in the book.

She would lug the book around the house held open to that page with her two pudgy hands, showing Baby Jesus to family members, plopping it up on our ottoman to look at it again, or holding Baby Jesus up to her face and giving him kisses. Yes, it was every bit as adorable as you're picturing.

Matt, I see your point! From the lips of babes we again learn about God! It's all about Baby Jesus and giving Him kisses, nothing else really matters.

True, a pretty good lesson, but that's not where this story ends...

Baby Addi was walking down the hall smooching away on Baby Jesus when my wife told her it was time to change her diaper. Addi doesn't mind getting her diaper changed unless there's something else she wants to do and I guess kissing Baby Jesus was it, because she got mad.

And in her anger she threw Baby Jesus (and the Angels, the Shepherds, the donkey, the camel, and at least 2 of the wise individuals) down the hall in protest and began to scream and cry.

From the lips of babes indeed...

The holidays are passing us by again and for a few weeks each year (maybe days or hours for you) we all get to kiss Baby Jesus. We get to crack open the book of our daily lives right to the really good part and just linger there, soaking it all in, amazed at the goodness of God and life.

But trees come down and lights are put away, stockings aren't hung with care but rather boxed with nostalgic regret.  Scales are stepped on to and work schedules are resumed, neglected chores return in force and classes are back with a vengeance.

Waves of "diaper changes" come our way and we like infant Addi holding our precious book go from celebratory joy and devotion to distress and anger that our reverie has been interrupted and Baby Jesus goes skidding down the hallway in protest.

I want to live a life where I can kiss Baby Jesus when I don't get my way, especially when I don't get my way. I want to remember that Immanuel may get a spotlight on the calendar each year but the true light and true message of God With Us can manifest just as wonderfully each day of the 365. I want to live the reality more consistently that the things I think so often are "in the way" are actually "the way."

If you haven't packed your Nativity scene(s) away yet, might I suggest keeping little Baby Jesus out this year? Or maybe printing off a copy of the Baby Jesus page in a favorite Christmas Story book? Then put Baby Jesus somewhere He can be seen every day and maybe pray a prayer like this:
Father God,
May I see the wondrous beauty and humble grace of Baby Jesus today in my life. May I find Him especially in the moments when I'm most tempted to throw a tantrum because I did not get my way. Help me to worship Immanuel today.
Amen.

Peace on earth to you my friends.

Matt O.

P.S. If the only Nativity scene you have is a big light up plastic one, you have 3 options: Find a Nativity book as suggested and copy a page, find the last remaining discount sale in your town on Christmas items and purchase a more manageable set, or bring the lit-up Baby Jesus into your home and give Him a permanent place. Why not? However, if you choose Option #3, might I suggest additionally bringing in the coolest looking Wise Man and give him a spot in your home for the year. Then when faced with family drama or decisions you could ask him questions at supper or use him as the bad guy when disciplining your children..."Well, I was going to let you off the hook for it, but the Wise Man says it would be best for the development of your character to take out the trash the next 6 months. Sorry, son, it's hard to argue with wisdom."

P.P.S  Ok, maybe even funnier would be to bring Mary in the house and plug her in for the year. Then you could ask her "Mary, did you know?" questions all year.
"Mary did you know that I got a C on my Algebra test today?"
"Mary did you know I was thinking about shaving my goatee?"
"Mary did you know that I worked all day on this pot roast and no one said anything encouraging about it?"

P.P.P.S. If any you bring the light-up plastic characters into your home for daily interaction, please send me a pic and any memorable quotes or anecdotes that occur. Thank you very much.
 

Overflow

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 1 Thessalonians 3:12

“Two bucks for one shot? That’s outrageous! When I was growing up, you got three shots for a dollar.”

My inner protestor shouts as I walk the dusty, fried streets of the Cleveland County Fair. Everything is expensive, from the games to the rides to the funnel cakes. But this is not my first Fair, so I know the places where the quantity exceeds the cost, where you get the most bang for your buck, the most delight for your dollar. And when it comes to food, that place is Culler’s fries. The French fries are fresh and delicious there but what I really love is they don’t rip you off. The guy always has a big scooper that he splashes into the fry pan, bringing up a mighty haystack of golden goodness, which he then stuffs into the little paper cones waiting in their holders. He finishes his performance delicately, patting in the last few fries, stuck out like wild hairs, some of them defying the laws of gravity just to be included in my bouquet of Idaho glory. The pick-up station there is always messy, like some battlefield in a potato civil war, french fries lying everywhere, splashes of vinegar and grains of salt surrounding the corpses. Always messy. Because at Culler’s fries, they pack each purchase until it overflows.

Overflow is not a neat word, it is not tidy. Overflow means too much! (Think riverbanks, crowds, toilets, and Culler’s fries. . .) It means excess, surplus, or unable to be contained in the current container.

This season, we have celebrated together the Advent, the coming of the Christ-child, Immanuel, God with us. This child we celebrate is the overflowing love of God. It is too much Lord!

That you would humble yourself to share in our humanity, that you would wrap yourself up in this skin so that we might call you Savior. You have flooded and smothered us with your love, it is excessive and over-the-top, we humans do not deserve such a lavish gift.

But it’s never been about what we deserve, has it? It’s about your overflowing character.

We come over the hill of shame wishing for the rags of servants, and you wrap us in your robe and ring.

We come home expecting the scraps of your table, and you throw us your finest feast.

 Overflow. It is too much.

And it’s the word Paul prayed for the folks at Thessalonica concerning their love—that God would increase their love and make it overflow for each other and for everyone else.

As we celebrate and remember this extravagant love of God in Jesus, may we reflect on what it means to have an overflowing love for each other. . .and for everyone else.

Matt O. 12.2013

Holiday Values Part 5

"Well, brother Matt, you sure have put a wrinkle in my stocking with all these Christmas posts-- extolling the Grinch and leaving poor plastic Nativity camels to fend for themselves and the like-- but you've been a little evasive on what you really think about the whole season..."

True enough, I've held back some cards for here on Christmas eve when visions of sugar plums are dancing through your head--wait, what's a sugar plum and when's the last time anyone's had one? I have visions of many delicious holiday foods and perhaps have danced a little jig myself in anticipation, but I can't remember a time when the sugar plum dance crew broke it down in my mind.
It's funny how many things surrounding Christmas time are slightly odd...

We cut down trees, place them in our homes and put lights on them. Or we get a plastic tree out of our garage and assemble it.

We hang over-sized socks from our mantels. And use the myth of an obese man in pimp clothes invading our homes as a deterrent to naughty behavior.

And how about those weird Christmas lyrics?

When's the last time you roasted chestnuts? Or brought corn over to someone's house "for popping"?
Have you ever staged a protest at a holiday party that you weren't going to leave until you got some figgy pudding? And everyone pretends their Snowman is Frosty--I don't know who this upstart Parson Brown is.

I'd love to deck your hall but I'm all out of holly. I dropped it and ran when I say saw eight maids a milkin' and ten lords a leapin'.

Many of our traditions and songs come from a different era with different cultural icons attached to the Christmas holiday (back to this in a moment)

Much of the talk I hear during this season is about making sure we remember the true meaning of Christmas, and by the way it is said, it indicates that anything that isn't about baby Jesus in a manger is not the true meaning of Christmas: the "everything else" of Christmas is "in the way".

What if the other stuff doesn't have to be "in the way"? What if the figgy pudding, wrapping paper, and awkwardly placed mistletoe can be a part of the "true meaning" of Christmas?

Some words from the esteemed Englishman Clive Staples Lewis:
There is a stage in a child's life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began 'Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.' This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.

Lewis makes the case we can find the spiritual in the festal, if we put the spiritual first, but if we do not put it first: everything takes on a withering (and I would say cynical and hopeless) life.

When we live under the gracious and loving rule of Jesus as Lord, we are living in the Kingdom of God and as we do that, we can, if we allow ourselves to respond this way, find the beauty and goodness in things and persons all around us.

We can delight in well-wrapped gifts and perfectly baked snickerdoodles and the squealing laughter of children when they unwrap the gift you said was too expensive. We can find grace and peace in the midst of squabbling relatives and too salty ham. The whole experience can be soaked with the presence of Immanuel, God with us, the God who immersed himself in our humanity.

When we live in response to the Spirit's rule, we begin to get our Garden of Eden eyes back and as we do, we can see the wonderful and worshipful all around us in this Creation in which we have been placed.

So back to our earlier thoughts on Christmas traditions: What do they mean to you?

Are gifts acts of love? Or signs that we have bowed down to the capitalist greed machine?

But, but, Matt did you know one time a tree symbolized this and that?

Does it now? My tree reminds me of all that is good in this season and all the nostalgic delight of what I experienced as a child.

People used to say "God bless you!" after you sneezed because they thought a demon had been expelled from the body! But it's not what it means now right?

Left-handed people were considered Devil's spawn at one point, but not so now.

We change meanings all the time by our motives and by the values we personally attach to things. And Christ the infant King is The Meaning Changer and the Value Bringer, The Gift Giver and the Grand Celebrator.

I don't even know what figgy pudding is but I have my own "figgy puddings" in which I can delight, and be like the small boy shaking those chocolate eggs, because I follow Jesus Risen.

Christians, we are the Feast-ers! The Extravagant lovers! The ones who can always find Jubilee in defiance of the darkness. The ones who can find Christ in the chocolate. Delight in the meaning of Christmas among you, because Immanuel has come and His coming that first Christmas signaled the inauguration of a Kingdom that will culminate in an eternal Wedding feast!

So drink up the egg nog to the glory of God! Wear that tacky sweater for the Kingdom! Carve up the roast beast! And sing whatever songs bring you joy--even if their original meanings escape you. In doing so, we echo the true meaning of Christmas, and reflect the glories of the King who is with us, for us, and in us.

Grace and Peace to you.

Matt O.

Holiday Values Part 4

The Parable of the Missing Butter

I had been working on my chocolate chip cookie recipe through many batches and manifestations and finally felt I had arrived at the perfect cookie, the right ingredients in proper amounts, an oven heated to an exact temperature, and a timed amount of baking on a certain pan of specific thickness.

I had been baking all morning--for company was coming in the evening, the kind of company who knows their cookies...so I double checked each step, meticulously hovering over ever dollop of dough placed and every spatula swipe of cooled but still warm confections.

I was removing the final pan from the oven when my wife burst into the kitchen--she was agitated with some news of great import, I could tell, yet when she saw me amongst my sea of perfect cookies, she paused---

"What is it?" said I.

"Oh dearest," said she, "The cookies! Have you tried them?"

"I was waiting on you my darling!" said I, "You ask as if something is amiss!"

"It is! THEY have struck again, my charming chef! THEY have passed a law that no baked cookies may have butter in them!"

"Nooooo! How could THEY!?"

We both dashed to the counter of cooling cookies and each grabbed a scrumptious disc of culinary perfection, placed them in our mouths, and. . .and. . .

NO BUTTER!!! NOOOOOooooooo!!

How could THEY?? I remember clearly placing the sticks of softened butter into the bowl, it should be impossible for them to remove the butter once it's in the dough...how could THEY do that??

The answer is...THEY can't. If the butter is really in the cookie dough, then there is no way THEY can take the butter out of the batch.

"THEY" can't take the "Christ" out of Christmas either, anymore than "THEY" can take the butter out of cookie dough made in your kitchen or take "prayer" out of schools.

WHAT?

Yep. If the prayer is really in your kids, then prayer will be in their schools. If you put the butter in, it'll be there no matter what.

But I have a little secret for you: I do know who can take "Christ" out of Christmas. . .

THE DEVIL!!!!!!!

Ha, nope.

You.

That's right...you can take the Christ out of Christmas.

When we complain and whine through the season...
When we attack "THEM" for doing exactly what someone would do who doesn't know Christ...
When we are selfish, greedy, materialistic, impatient, unforgiving (with our relatives?), uncaring, argumentative, and smugly arrogant.

We can take the Christ out of Christmas.

Not THEM, not Hollywood, not Wall Street, not Liberal Media, and not even Wal-Mart...
We are the ones who can take the butter out of the cookies, because we're the ones in the kitchen.

So Matt, you're not bothered about the phrase Happy Holidays or Nativity Scenes disappearing?

Nope. Not one bit.

If the Nativity isn't in your heart, then cheap plastic light-up poorly made-in-China manger scenes (and biblically inaccurate I might add) aren't going to do anything to "win the community for Christ."

In fact:
Our job isn't to legislate into existence a Christian society, our calling is to demonstrate a Christ is the King community.

And I'm about to go all Grinch on you again (yes, in back-to-back posts!):
The Grinch did a whole lot more than change the name of Christmas--he took it all: trees, gifts, lights, roast beast and even the last ever-loving crumb from the last little mouse. And he didn't stop Christmas at all...not at all!!

You know how you stop "THEY" and "THEM"? You show THEM what a Christ-filled Christmas really is even if they take the Baby Jesus ornaments off the tree in your own living room...you show them what Christ does:
He didn't whine when He was on the cross, when He was afflicted, mocked, ridiculed, naked and beaten...He said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

How did "THEY" handle that? THEY didn't...and THEY still can't...

And when the Whos down in Whoville didn't blink at what THEY had done to Christmas but decided to have them some Christmas anyways, what happened to THEY's heart? It burst out of its shriveled condition and grew three sizes that day. . .

So, enough says I!

Come on Whos, rise up and have a Christ-filled Christmas no matter what THEY do! We don't use Christmas to send a message to some ambiguous enemy we're at war with, we celebrate Christmas because it's IN us and WITH us. The message naturally shining in us brings redemption to THEY's heart--not forcing them to celebrate our message our way--because there's a vast difference between rubbing a stick of butter on someone else's cookies versus letting them taste a well-baked cookie with the butter already in it.

Matt O.

Holiday Values Part 3

I went through a pretty severe disillusionment with the Christmas season, mocking traditions, cynically declaring everyone to be consumerist drones, and pointing out to anyone who listened how Santa was eerily close in spelling to Satan, a coincidence I thought was intentional.

I had become Mr. Grinch, and although I felt my "spiritual" reasons allowed me to be a stink-stank-stunk kind of guy--I began to realize something was wrong in my heart. . .

"You're a rotter, Mr. Grinch!

You're the king of sinful sots!

Your heart's a dead tomato,

Splotched with moldy, purple spots,

Mr. Grinch!

Your soul is an apalling dump-heap,

Overflowing with the most disgraceful

assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,

Mangled-up in tangled-up knots!"

That's not my favorite verse in the song but the one which accurately describes the negative knot of anger and judgment I'd been brewing for several years, to bring in another Christmas icon, I was Ebenezer Scrooge and my "Bah! Humbug!" was potent and freely given...

"But Matt, I'm with you, everyone's spending all this money and making Christmas about stuff! It's horrible!"

But don't we say Christmas is about the best gift of all? And that's why we give gifts?

So, how do we acquire gifts?

"Well, ideally, we'd make something."

But friend, not everyone can make something and even those who do pay for the materials they use to make those products. The amount of people making gifts for others using only raw materials they produced from their own land is a small percent of a percent.

To give gifts to those you love requires, for the vast majority of us, buying something.

Is it wrong to buy gifts for others? I do not think so. In fact, I don't think it's wrong to buy extravagant gifts sometimes...perhaps you remember this story from the life of Jesus:

Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head.

Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. (Mark 14, the Message)

A gift given...

seemingly wasted...

so expensive it cost a year's wages...

the poor neglected...

...and Jesus blesses the giving of the gift. In the Luke recounting of the story, Jesus conveys she gave this gift out of gratitude and affection.

And on top of it all: it was perfume! Perfume? A bottle of perfume worth my yearly salary? Are you kidding me? It's hard for me to think a plastic toy which costs $50 (outrageous!) is more wasteful than smelly liquid so expensive it could support my family for a year. How could you possibly justify not using that money to help the poor?

"Why are you baking those cookies?! You could use those hours serving in a soup kitchen! In fact, why are you even sleeping! You could be knitting socks for orphans in Africa right now!"

We can easily spiral out of control and become incredibly unhealthy when asking questions about gifts and Christmas and cost...

The important question is:

am I giving gifts in love this Christmas?

Love is always sacrificial and sometimes extravagant and ridiculous too, and those kinds of gifts are the best.

I'm not being the Anti-Dave Ramsey here and telling you to go into debt and buy your spouse the surprise Lexus (heck, most of us would go into debt just buying the red bow on that Lexus) nor am I being Mr. Support Sweat Factories By Buying Foreign Toys...don't hear me with Grinch ears...

Jesus says our Heavenly Father know how to give us good gifts, but He says it right after He affirms that we know how to give good gifts to our children. I don't know if you see His endorsement for loving and blessing your kids there in that passage but I do.

God wasn't satisfied to just give us laws from Sinai or to just wipe our slates clean of our eternal debts, John says he lavished us with love and called us His children. Lavish. I like to say He smothered and covered us with His love. And He sent the lavish gift of His Son to a world that mostly ignores what that Son stands for...

Was God wasteful?

"But, but, Matt! You're being awful gracious--there's tons of greed, gluttony, selfishness, ignorance, and jealousy at Christmas that must be addressed!"

Ah, friend, those things aren't just present at Christmas, those are year round commodities, we Grinches just like to shine a light on it once a year. If we were really concerned about their pervasive presence we'd stand against them consistently by our daily choices and not just vocally during the Happy Holidays.

"Wait, you said Happy Holidays, are you one of them?!?"

Oh dear.

More on our friend the Grinch tomorrow...

Matt O.

 

Grinch Smile.jpg

Holiday Values Part 2

(This is part 2 in a series of posts I did in 2012 to speak about the intersection of what we value and what we feel we're supposed to value during the Christmas season. I'll post a new one up each week day until the 25th...Enjoy!)

(Today's disclaimer: I'm about to write about family memories of Christmas gifts for kids. This blog is not an endorsement or value statement about how many gifts we should buy, how much money we should spend, materialism, etc. I will try to address the "consumerism of Christmas" with Holiday Values Part 3...)

My parents did a great job balancing out the gifts between their three children every Christmas. If you had brothers or sisters, you know what "balancing out the gifts" means...

It means when the children rest from their tornadic flurry of shredding wrapping paper, and sit amongst the Yuletide shrapnel, there comes a moment when each kid looks at their plunder and compares it to the plunder received by their siblings and they think one of two things to themselves:
"I feel OK with the distribution of wealth in this place" OR
"I made out like a bandit. I'm clearly the winner this morning."


If parents can get each of their kids to think the kid version of one of those two statements then the gifts were officially balanced.

My mom was brilliant with the art form of balancing gifts, because it's not just about the volume of treasure, it's about knowing how each kid ticks and what they really want. Mom would make sure we each got a "big gift"or a "cornerstone gift" as I like to think about it, and then filled in the rest of the haul with a deft combination of toys we wanted (GI Joe and Star Wars figures) and some stuff we needed (underwear and socks). The trick too was that if Mom knew she wasn't going to get you everything on the list she would figure out what items would joyously counteract and dismiss any temporal disappointment you may have at not getting the previously desired item...

I remember the only time when I did have a little discontentment, albeit very briefly.

My brother and I were already merging our menagerie of figures and vehicles into one grand storyline--the GI Joe jeep full of brand new characters driving up to the Ewok Village--and were busy determining who who would be the "good guys" and who would be the "bad guys" in today's exciting episode when I glance over at my little sister's treasure trove.

It was the year she got the Play Kitchen, you know the walk-in play kitchen with the oven that opened, cupboards filled with dishes and a vast supply of plastic groceries? My eyes went from her kitchen to our battlefield and I began to run some quick plastic-to-plastic ratios and comparisons and quickly realized how much more gift volume-wise she had received.

Here my brother and I were playing with a little world and there she was playing in a world. I almost got up and went over and asked if I could put the pretend muffin tray in the oven but then I remembered Han Solo and Road Block needed to put the hurting on The Emperor and Destro and my momentary pang of plastic envy receded.

Unfortunately for many of us, we never get over the Plastic Walk-In Kitchen Envy I felt there for a few moments. We spend many days locked in mental bitterness that our plastic-to-plastic ratio is not fair or not what we wanted. During the Christmas season, it can be easy for our jealous eyes to lock onto the "perfect scenarios" that others have: from their income, to their families, to their traditions, to their seemingly drama free lives...

How do we combat this mentality?

I offer two brief thoughts:
1. Remember your Heavenly Father is way better than my mom at giving us what we need (and sometimes what we want!) and allowing us to know His goodness through His gifts. Gifts not made of temporary plastic but of more rich substance, the eternal elements of love, joy, peace, and hope. These gifts endure, unlike the ones we find cluttering up our attics and floors. I find the jealous and comparing eye I can be quick to have transforms into visions of gratitude when I seek to abide in the Vine and not my calculations. This is not a guaranteed dismissal from bad memories or painful circumstances, but a faithful promise of unfailing love.

2. After we three Orth children opened and played with our gifts for a while, we would pile up in the car and go to Grandma and Pappy Orth's house (of The Grandma Loop fame). The cool part was we could take our favorite toys with us and play with them there! So the gripping saga my brother and I had devised could go with us in the car. But guess what couldn't go with us? A big old honking plastic kitchen! When you look at others who "have it all" remember there is always more to their situation than meets the eye, more issues involved than just the illusion you see of the perfect life.

I'll leave you with Eugene Peterson's translation of Paul's concluding words to the church at Philippi:
I'm just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I've found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.

Matt O.

 

Holiday Values Part 1

(I'm bringing back a series of posts I did in 2012 to speak about the intersection of what we value and what we feel we're supposed to value during the Christmas season. I'll post a new one up each week day until the 25th...Enjoy!)

If you were a boy growing up in the 1980s, you grew up in the Golden Era of toys and every other era shrivels in jealousy at the glory of your majesty. If this was a debate, I would make these three opening points:

Original Star Wars. Original GI Joe. Original Transformers.

Throw in the powerful sub-points of Masters of the Universe (He-Man), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron, and Original Thundercats as well. (These 4 alone could stomp on the heads of every Pokemon and Yugioh character every fashioned by a fourteen year old Japanese Animator)

What's that ladies? You thought I was an egalitarian type blogger? You're right, I am! Feel free to claim the above toys as your own as well and although it's not my main argument I'll make a few brief points for your traditional case as well:

Cabbage Patch Kids. Strawberry Shortcake. Care Bears. My Little Ponies.

OK, OK, We hear you Matt O! Any closing arguments?

Rubik's Cube and Original Nintendo? I rest my case.

Did pride well up in you if you grew up in that era and played with those toys? Post-80s readers, did the spirit of debate raise its head to defend your toys?

We are quick to defend what we value, no more so than when defending cultural items of nostalgia or our favorite bands, movies, or sports teams.

This Christmas season, I want to ask what do you value? What have you placed supreme importance on?

What are you defending...in your actions or in your mind?

Expectations of the perfect holiday or perfect meal? Pleasing other people? The dream of having a stress-free zone? The opportunity to splurge and get what you want? Your right to judge the holiday and other people as materialistic? Your one season of acceptable gluttony? We often defend these values in the name of defending Christmas.

But our true values don't need defenders, they need witnesses. The fruits of the Kingdom as we follow Christ are grace, joy, peace, love, hope, humility, and justice. These attributes often show up strongest in moments where our expectations are most unmet or our sacred cows most threatened.

May we manifest these values first and foremost this season, and may we lay down the inner stresses and conflicts created by defending temporary and immediate values destined to fade...like once treasured toys discarded and forgotten in a closet, waiting to be packed in a cardboard box and given away...

(Unless of course, you have an original Millennium Falcon in the package, you can still gloat about that a little bit.)

Part 2 tomorrow.

Grace & peace to you...
Matt O.

Fig Leaves for Lunch

"Ronies! Ronies! Ronies!"

"Yes, I'm getting you some pepperonis. Can you say please?"

"Peeeeese. Miylk! Miylk! More miylk...peeeese."

"Yes, and I'll get you some milk too."

My favorite lunches growing up were the ones resembling Lunchables in the pre-Lunchables era: no sectioned box, but four or five finger foods arrayed on a plate, a mini-feast for a mighty king. I try to recreate the same for my toddler Addi each day at lunch and our conversation is full of her narrating the action or making requests.

We started this day off with a little stack of the tiny pepperonis (Ronies!), a sippy jug of milk, and a half-dozen grapes (Gapes!). I add a handful of veggie chips, some almonds, and a slice of colby jack cheese (Cheeeeez!). She tends to grab the Ronies and stuff them in her mouth like a greedy Chipmunk in winter, then pick from the other food piles over the next half hour, taking time to drop a grape or smash some cheese in her hair as she chatters non-stop about the world around her.

This day I arranged her buffet on the high chair tray and went outside to check the mail. I returned to a silent kitchen. No chatter. The food looked untouched, sitting in lonely piles. Addi saw me and grabbed the side of the high chair with one hand, pulling her face to the side, trying to hide from me.

"Addi, what's wrong honey?"

Buries her face more in the highchair.

"Addi? What happened? What's wrong?"

A whimper communicating she didn't want to talk.

"Look at me Addi. What's wrong? Talk to me."

Radiating embarrassment, she faced me, chin dropping low.

"Are you hurt?"

"No."

"Are you scared?"

"No."

I can't figure out what's going on, but I do see a small booger appear out of one nostril as she talks. I grab a tissue.

"Honey, I need to blow your nose."

"Nuh-uh." A shake of the head, and she buries her face again.

"Addi, let me blow your nose."

A shameful turning of her face and I put the tissue on her nose.

"Blow."

"Owwwww," she says.

"Did that hurt?"

"Yeah."

That wasn't a booger I saw. "Addi, did you put an almond up your nose?"

Shame.

"Yeah." Hides her face again.

"Daddy needs to get it out. Look at me."

I hold the tissue higher up on her nose and ask her to blow again. She says "owww" as the almond slides out like an egg from a chicken.

"There you go. Daddy got it. Does that feel better?"

"Yeah," she says and grabs a chip.

"Don't do that again, Addi. Do you understand? Don't do that again. Okay, Daddy?"

"Okay, Daddy."

And like that we were back to normal eating, normal conversation and normal relationship (after a brief moment where I left the room to laugh of course.)

Addi and I enjoy our meal times together, interacting, laughing, pretending, and learning words and songs. I did not like the silent kitchen and I most certainly did not like seeing my joyful toddler hiding in shame.

Shame. Where did she learn that? I don't know where she learned it but I do know when she learned it--when that almond went up that nostril. Things were not right and she knew she had done something unnatural with the almond.

Was I angry? Not really. I was more worried I wouldn't be able to get it out and we'd have to spend some deductible and many hours navigating an emergency room. I wanted to help her, and help meant no almond in the nose but also the removal of her shame. I had no desire for my sweet daughter to live embarrassed and isolated. I did not delight in the idea of her "learning her lesson" only by hiding from fellowship with me for the next week until I made my point that nuts do not belong in nostrils.

Did we just experience the concept of sin and wrath together? Some perhaps would see total depravity in this nasal catastrophe...

What I did experience, as an imperfect father, was how much God wants us to be in relationship with himself and how strongly he desires to remove our shame.

Did you shove an almond up your nose?

Did you eat from that tree?

Humans still wear fig-leaves of shame and God still comes looking for us in the tangled garden of life. He comes not to curse us anymore but comes instead as the Father with ring, robe, and a heart to remove shame.

The difference is Christ: His life, death and resurrection. The great news is Jesus is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being. (Hebrews 1:3)

We sin. We also do dumb, unwise things like shoving the wrong objects up metaphorical sinus canals. We realize it's wrong, both from the pain and awkwardness it creates...but we can't remove the source of hurt by ourselves...

Turn and receive the grace of God. He wants things to be right more than you do and only He can remove shame.

Hebrews 4 says He sits on the throne of grace...stop hiding from Him like He rules from the throne of wrath. Come and taste the ronies of the Lord and know that He is good.

Rev Mack Ore's Halloween Journal 2013

Rev Mack Ore here. Young Matt Orth asked me to keep a journal of my Halloween experience yesterday. I’ve never been one to celebrate this holiday so all of it was very new to me. I think I remembered everything the way it happened, but details can get fuzzy after you’ve downed your weight in Milky Way mini-bites.

8:00 am               

My wife tells me she can’t believe I’m going through with this and asks me what my costume is.

“What do you mean costume?” I say, “I thought I’d just wear an orange tie with my black suit and people will give me candy ‘cause I’m the preacher.” She rolls her eyes. I tell her to roll me some biscuits.

8:01 am

I’m stressed out about the costume thing. I load the 30 hours of free AOL CD into my IBM and click the dial-up link. Good, 26 hours left. I go to the Google and find some Angelfire websites that talk about costume ideas. All of them look like magazine ads from a catalog named Sodom & Gomorrah’s Babylonian Hussies & Zombies. Mack Ore goes to his bible for inspiration.

1:00 pm

Got lost in meditation in the Minor Prophets. Really stressed now. And hungry. Grab two fists of tootsie rolls from our handout bowl. So hungry I accidentally ingest a few of the Proverbs we wrapped around them. Dang it, I hope it wasn’t the one about not embracing the bosom of a wayward woman; some third grader needs to hear that.

1:05 pm

Inspiration strikes in the book of Revelations. As usual. The kids will call this costume epic. I will tell them to stop using that word.

2:45 pm

Teresa Jane is still sewing my costume. I ask her if she needs any skittles. She says no. I say good because I’ve eaten them all.

3:15 pm

“What’s taking you so long?” I ask.

“The goose feathers keep jamming the needle,” says my wife.

“Do we have any more Reesie Peesies?” I ask.

“No.”

5:12 pm

Finally. Time to slither this holy tent of a body into my costume. The moment I’m complete, the doorbell rings. I answer the door to find my own son under a white sheet with tons of holes. Holes that looked recently burned.

“Trick or treat!”

“What are you?”

“The Holy Ghost.”

“Nice. Does your mom know you burned holes in that sheet?”

“Not yet. Who are you?” he asks.

“I’m the Angel holding the 7 Bowls of God’s Wrath.”

“What’s in the bowls?”

“Wrath.”

“Can I have some candy?”

“There’s nothing left but black jelly beans and half a Zero bar.”

“That’s it?”

“Don’t look at me.”

5:20 pm

I have an eight foot wingspan. I am reminded of this as I hear the sound of Precious Moments Bible Hero figurines crashing in my wake. I turn quickly to try and save Ezekiel but drop one of the bowls of wrath onto Teresa Jane’s lace table cloth. The irony is not lost on me.

6:00 pm

I line up my eight children to inspect their costumes. I already met the Holy Ghost. My youngest cut out the bottom of a picnic basket and is walking inside it wearing a diaper.

“Who are you?”

“B-b-b-b-aby M-m-m-Moses.”

“Excellent. And historically accurate.”

The next three stand close together and look like Anthony Wiener, Nancy Grace, and a big cardboard box with doors cut into the front.

“Kids, I said Christian costumes only.”

“We’re The Lyin’, the Witch, and The Wardrobe.”

“The Angel of Wrath stands corrected,” I say.

My son Eagleswings stands with a shaved head.

“Get it, dad? I’m a bald eagle.”

“I said Christian costume.”

“I represent America.”

“Corrected again.”

I look at my two oldest children, clearly dressed as zombies.

“After twenty five years in this house, you should know what I feel about evil costumes.”

“We’re Ananias and Saphira.”

“This is the greatest night of my life.”

6:05 pm

“Don’t wait up Teresa Jane. Mack Ore is going trick or treating!” I turn sideways to fit through the door, balancing all seven bowls like I was made to carry God’s wrath. I look for something to haul my loot in.

6:17 pm

I knock on Ray Comfort’s door. He winks at me and puts a banana in my wheelbarrow.

6:45 pm

I get a tip from a girl dressed like Satan mated with Minnie Mouse (one of the pagan kids called it Miley Cyrus) that down the street John Piper was hosting a Reformaween party. Sounds like some serious fun.

6:58 pm

Stopped on my way to Reformaween by a group of angry protestors. They hold signs saying “Hallowicked!” and “Candy Corns = Devil’s Horns” and yell angry slogans at the families walking by while throwing scarecrows dressed like vampires into a bonfire.

I decide to yell back at them.

“I thought we believed in redemption!”

“This holiday started from pagan roots!” one woman yells back, “It celebrates evil.”

“Maybe it did back then, but for most folks now it just celebrates creativity, costumes, and candy. They aren’t trying to rejoice in evil.” I reply.

“No sir,” says the man I assume to be the lead preacher, “You participate in a holiday at all then you participate in what that holiday originally stood for.”

“Oh, so no matter how greedy and gluttonous we are at Thanksgiving, we’re still honoring the original gratitude of the pilgrims?”

7:01 pm

I arrive at Reformaween. The door guard asks if I’m invited.

“Of course I am,” I say.

“How can I be sure?” he says.

“I’ve been chosen.” I say.

“How do you know?” he says.

“It was predestined.” I say.

“I don’t know if you sound elect enough,” he says.

“I’m carrying the seven bowls of God’s wrath,” I answer, “And one of them is full of sour patch kids.”

“Irresistible,” he says, and grabs a handful, “You may enter, but don’t ask John for the recipe for the Justification Muffins, it just makes him angrier.”

7:17 pm

I fail miserably at Bobbing for Total Depravity Apples. Everyone yells at me to try harder, but I just don’t feel like persevering.

7:21 pm

I meet Mark Driscoll by the machos and cheese. He’s dressed as the Incredible Hulk and informs me the rest of the Avengers had to leave because they heard someone dressed as The Gospel but didn’t do it right. He is really, really impressed with my costume.

7:22

“No Mark, for the last time, you can’t ‘pour out’ a few of my bowls on the people over there.”

The folks dressed as Priscilla and worship-leading Aquila thank me. Thirsty, I grab another RC Sproul-a and mingle some more.

7:23 pm

“Nice costume. Captain Caveman, I loved that cartoon.”

“That’s just my goatee,” says David Crowder.

“Oh. I love that song you wrote about a sloppy wet kiss. I, um, have all these chips and I’m out of Glory Guacamole,” I say and leave. It was more awkward than it sounds.

7:25 pm

I’m approached by a man dressed as a drug dealer but wearing a tie and carrying a bible.

“Hey, I’m Billy Gram. You want to get out of here?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure I want to leave with someone like you.”

He pulls down his shades and looks at me, “It’s me, James Dobson. Pretty cool, huh?”

“Jim! I’ve missed you so much!” I say.

“Let’s split, I heard there’s nothing but air in the Seeker Sensitive Piñata,” he says.

7:28 pm

I’m a bit woozy from my ninth king-size butterfinger, either that, or David Platt put something radical in the Penal Substitution Punch. Jim “Billy Gram” Dobson and I meet some nice Lutheran girls dressed as Pre-Fall Eve and Post-Psalm 51 Bathsheba. I spray myself with Job 31:1 cologne and we head to a Judgment House they heard about over in the Baptist cul-de-sac.

7:45 pm

So, apparently Judgment houses are Halloween plays designed to make you think about what you should yell from hell to all your guilty friends in heaven. It would have been nice for Dr. Dobson to warn me before I pulled three bloody teenagers from an overturned car, shut down an abortion clinic in a Sunday School room, and turned on the AC and lights in Hades after casting out all the demons that looked suspiciously like 6th graders.

8:07 pm

Billy Gram and I try to share a popcorn ball we got from some guy named Shane in a hobo costume but it wasn’t really popcorn, it was made from used gum he’d recycled.

8:11 pm

Blogaweeners house party. We didn’t feel welcome there; they all just sat in different corners writing about each other and sipping red wine.

8:27 pm

Hordes of college students running into us, fleeing in terror.

“What are you running from?” I ask.

“That house back there! It’s really haunted!”

“So scary!”

“Run for your lives!”

“Finally, some real action,” says Dr. D.

The house is a standard subdivision home, with a two car garage, manicured lawn, and warmly lit windows. We enter the home. Sitting at the dining room table is a husband and wife and two kids, a brown dog lies in the corner. “I wonder why the college kids said this place was haunted.” I say.

The dad raises his arms and speaks to us.

“You’ll never have this unless you work hard, learn the meaning of sacrifice, and persevere when things don’t automatically go your way. You will not get your dream job out of college, or even out of graduate school in all likelihood, and you most certainly won’t be able to make ends meet if you keep racking up debt. Most of you will go through long bouts of loneliness and then if you do get married, you’ll find that finding that special someone was a lot less work than learning to love that special someone every day. Would you like a bite of grass fed roast beef? It cost ten dollars a pound. Muhahahahahaha.”

9:45 p.m.

I part ways with Billy Gram, Bathsheba, and Eve, who is passed out in my candy wheelbarrow. (She better not puke on my Swedish fish.) I meet John Eldredge who asks if I want to have a little fun.

2:00 am

I arrive home. Whoa, John, you really are wild. Hope Max Lucado finds the wheels to his car before the cops do.

2:07 am

I pass out on the couch watching TBN with a twizzler in my mouth. My bowls of wrath tip over on to the carpet.

Happy All Saints Day to you all.

What Kind of Camelot?

I watched lumberjack chefs skim the surface of a massive frying pan on skates of butter, preparing the cast iron skillet to cook a pancake big enough for the appetite of Paul Bunyan. My elementary school mind embraced the idea of myth as the old reel to reel film introduced us to the tall tales of America. I loved the legends of a great blue ox and the original pot-head Johnny Appleseed planting all those trees and Davy Crockett killing a bear when he was only three. And don't get me started on ole John Henry, the steel-drivin' man. He was my absolute favorite, sticking it to the man by dual-wielding sledgehammers and out railroading the steam engine. Classic.

My fascination with tall tales grew and I eventually learned about the famous legend of England, a story of a King and his court woven into the fabric of their history: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table ruling with strength and chivalry from the idyllic castle city of Camelot.

Like most young boys, at first I was attracted to the myth of his sword Excalibur, spurred by the sword in the stone movie, but soon it was Merlin and his magic that grabbed me, an attraction to wizened wizards I confess I have yet to give up.  Slowly the idea of genuine heroism mingled with the bravado, and I learned of Arthur's ideals and what his knights championed. At its core, the legend of King Arthur is about a perfect kingdom led by a King of character, who fights for the oppressed and maintains peace at any cost. His knights represent him, shining with the glory of righteousness, gathered at the round table of equality, and ruling from the heaven-on-earth city of Camelot.

Subconsciously I think for many years in ministry I pictured myself and my work in Arthurian terms. I'm the noble king (pastor) using Excalibur (the Word) to create Camelot (the ministry/church) with the help of my chivalrous knights (whoever likes me and my vision). Note I started this paragraph with the word "subconsciously," I never pictured myself on a white stallion (the church van) saving peasants (the lost) from the pagan hordes (the world). But I do think an idealized Arthurian concept permeated the way I functioned and can still be a factor even today.

What do I mean?

I am not King Arthur. I am not a knight. Pastors are shepherds not superheroes; we're gardeners not conquerors. 

Yes we believe in ideals and we work for peace with (hopefully) a gentle sort of strength. . .but:

I'm not creating a Camelot of perfection; I'm declaring a Kingdom of grace.

And to declare a Kingdom of grace means to live with people who need grace, including myself. It means living day to day in a culture of vulnerability, where burdens are carried together and forgiveness is required to endure.

The church is not an elite force of shiny knights elevated around a round table; we are hospitable hosts of the Wedding feast of the Lamb, a table not united by ideals or utopian vision, but by the grace and spirit of Jesus Christ, the Creator King, who invited the lame and the lepers, the outcasts and the unlikely, welcoming all to the party of grace.

This is important. Our Savior and Lord unites us, not our shared hope of heavenly perfection nor the collective esteem earned from our earthly righteousness. The church that strives for "perfection" may well achieve a glory that others envy but it will be a thin veneer covering the messy realities of human community rather than redeeming them. The "knights" (the ones who fit the vision) will be exalted and the "peasants" (the ones who don't) left pining. We have to learn to worship together as a people both helplessly imperfect and wonderfully diverse, making sure the round table of our worship experience is not a polished bubble of religious escapism where only the "Lancelots" belong. If we strive first for a Camelot Church based on elitism (even if unintentional), the word known as “Excellence” may become for us the worst of idols, with the beautiful fruit of God's relational Kingdom withering from a vine-less branch. 

 

Is the legend of Camelot a mythical stirring of the heavenly realm set in our hearts? Perhaps. We do serve a perfect King who has eternal values, who is coming again to consummate His perfect reign.

But as we wait, let us make sure our "Camelot" is full of humility, truth, grace, justice, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. . .rather than a worldly and exclusive version of sainthood.

Plowshare

Smoke choking, power pressing,

Fire around, pain within, black, orange,

hot, pliant, sparks, strikes, gray horizon.

Coals, coldness, violent  anvil,

Dark desert, dimming forge.

Hammer, Hammer, hate your sword?

Hammer, Hammer, why strike more?

Burn. Crash. Turn. Quench.

Contact bellows, crashing echoes,

Burn. Crash. Turn. Quench.

When? When? Hope seeks end.

Now? Now? Never, ever?

Strikes again.

Swing! Stroke! Wild, free!

Willing, sharp, ready! Start?

Swing, swing, swing sharp sword!

Bash lies, bring truth,

break world loose! Break world free!

Burn. Crash. Turn. Quench.

Hammer, Hammer, hate your sword?

Hammer, Hammer, why strike more?

Pause.

Swords divide, angry, violent,

Cursing, fighting, piercing, forcing.

No swords making, no swords swinging.

Trust hammer, trust timing,

Blacksmith knows, Blacksmith sees,

Imagination.

Burn. Crash. Turn. Quench.

Metal to fallow, strength for breaking,

Hope in furrows, seeds for sowing.

Burn.

Crash.

Turn.

Quench.

Change.